We know nothing. We never do. We see these people in stadiums. We think we know them. What I knew about Oscar Pistorius, everyone knew. We knew nothing.
We knew about the picture.
I went looking for it on this Valentine's Day morning when the news came from South Africa.
The picture shows Oscar Pistorius with an adorable little girl. I found it and looked at it for a long time and I thought, "This Oscar Pistorius?"
He is down in a starting stance. His blades are against the blocks. The little girl's name is Ellie May Challis. She is 5 years old and standing tall on her own blades. She is aglow, her blonde hair up in pigtails, her dress the happy color of sunflowers. She is magic and I see the picture again and I am thinking, "This Oscar Pistorius?"
Her arms end just below the elbows. She lives in Clacton, Sussex, England. Meningitis nearly killed her at 16 months. To save her life, doctors amputated her legs and arms. In the photograph, she has turned her head to the left, beginning to smile, looking at Pistorius, the handsome young man, the double-amputee who would compete against the world's best sprinters in the 2012 Olympics in London.
That Oscar Pistorius, we loved. His story was a version of Ellie May's. He was born without fibulas and his legs were amputated below the knee. He learned to walk on prosthetics and learned to compete when the prosthetics were replaced with carbon fiber blades. Those of us born whole thought it all a wonder, persuasive proof that a person could overcome disabilities that would send others to the dark corners of self-pity.
That Oscar Pistorius, we saw. We saw him the way we saw Jovan Belcher. We saw Belcher as linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. We knew him and we knew nothing. We didn't know about the guns in his home. In their bedroom he shot Kasandra Perkins nine times, killing the mother of his child before killing himself. We couldn't know that Javon Belcher. But the day before Valentine's Day, espnW.com's Kate Fagan wrote about Belcher in a piece that defined "the unrelenting sexism that exists in our sports culture." It's about power, Fagan said, it's about men controlling women. "It's a microcosm of how women are too often disregarded across society."
We saw Belcher and we saw Pistorius, and the people in Steubenville, Ohio, saw their famous high school football team. We saw them all. Players on the Steubenville team now stand accused of the sexual assault of a teenage girl. We saw them all and we loved what we saw, for we saw what we wanted to see. We saw them as heroes, and we should know better by now. After O.J. Simpson, after Pete Rose and Lance Armstrong, after our willing blindness to steroids and brain damage, after Mante Te'o's imaginary girlfriend -- we should know that looking for heroes is a fool's game.
And yet who could turn away from Oscar Pistorius? To see the South African on those carbon-fiber blades sprinting alongside the world's best in London's Olympics last summer was to know the power of the human spirit. We saw it for ourselves. We saw Pistorius beaten in the 400 meter semifinals. We saw the winner, from Grenada, tap Pistorius on the chest and ask to exchange bibs. We knew the miracle of it.
Now we know more. Even as I searched on Valentine's Day morning for the picture of Pistorius and Ellie May, there came disturbing reports from South Africa. Pistorius once allegedly threatened to break the legs of TV presenter Marc Batchelor after a dispute over an unnamed 18 year-old woman. He once walked from his bedroom, with a gun, thinking, incorrectly, that a burglar had entered his home. Police previously had investigated "allegations of a domestic nature" at Pistorius's home. On nights he couldn't sleep, he often went to a gun range to shoot. He kept a pistol in his home on the presumption that it is a necessary protection in South Africa, one of the world's murder capitals, where armed home invasions are a fact of everyday life.
There was initially a suggestion that Pistorius might have killed his girlfriend by mistake -- a rumor immediately discounted by police. Reeva Steenkamp, a South African model famous in her own right, had tweeted that morning: "What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow? #getexcited #ValentinesDay." Some may have believed she intended to surprise Pistorius with an early-morning visit. Here, though, a question: Who thinks to surprise a man who carries a 9 mm handgun? Neighbors told police they had heard loud voices in the night before they heard gunshots. Steenkamp was shot four times in the head, once in the arm. Police have charged Pistorius with murder.
Today, Ellie May Challis is 8 years old. Last summer, running on Dorset Orthopaedic blades, she took part in England's Junior Amputee Games. Her father, Paul, said, "What an amazing and inspirational day. Ellie loved every minute ... The Paralympics has changed everything. Before, if people saw Ellie, they would just watch her until she disappeared out of sight. Now it's a glimpse and they just say, 'There's a little girl on mini-blades.'"
Now I'm wondering how the father will tell his little girl about this story. They were together in that picture, blade runners both. And I ask, again, "This Oscar Pistorius?"